Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Insubstantial Pageant

That's what Shakespeare called it, but his texts
have remained pretty substantial. The text and
the moment, as in Tony Kushner's "Angels in
America" and its various performances on stage
and screen, demonstrate that the tension between
text and performance is theatre, and is a lot of its
enduring value. See post below. Posted by Picasa

First Principles: Text and Performance

The proper relationship of the text and the performance is often controversial, and different styles of theatre handle it differently--as do, unfortunately, different actors. But let's take a step back for a moment, and look at it in terms of the questioning of text--written words--by those who like to use spoken words as a stand-in for electronic media.

For instance, classicist James J O'Donnell (quoted in a book I'm reading for review elsewhere, called Distracted, by Maggie Jackson): "Is it not strange that we take the spoken word, the most insubstantial of human creations, and try through textuality to freeze it forever, and again, try to give the frozen words of those who are dead and gone, or at least far absent, control over our own experience of the lived here and now?"

Well, it might be strange if that were even close to true. For starters, while the spoken word has been "insubstantial" in a technical sense, at least until sound recording, the oral tradition of storytelling is hardly insubstantial in the larger sense. Stories that Homer recalled were told for hundreds of years before he wrote them down. Stories in the Native American tradition are still told, in living evidence of how the oral tradition works. (See The Truth About Stories by Thomas King, for evidence.)

But the real smasher of these sentences is performance, even theoretically. Apply what O'Donnell says to music, and you can see the logical problem. Music that is performed once is indeed "insubstantial"--that is, lost forever--unless the notes are written down (or the performance is recorded.) But once it is written down, according to O'Donnell, we are slaves to it forever, as it controls our experience of the here and now. Can't live with it, can't kill it.

It is certainly true that a piece of music, especially when heard repeatedly, and a book, and a play, can in some sense form our experience of the here and now, even beyond the here and now of the actual performance. That's why people associate certain songs with particular experiences, or play particular music to induce certain moods. Our view of the world is shaped in part by what we read, hear and watch--which sometimes means, by art.

The obvious example of how the fixed (the text) combines with the now is performance. Even apart from intepretation that consciously seeks to make a text more relevant to the now, or consciously shapes it for some other purpose, performance, by being in the moment, inevitably brings the text into a new time and place.

It's the best of both worlds. We can have performers, and all the people involved in a production, plus the audience of each particular performance, combine to create something that is alive in the here and now. While we also have the text of Shakespeare's plays, safely preserved, so that others may try to find and present its truth. Note that word: present.

For the here and now is not the last word in wisdom. Nor is the latest medium necessarily the best--compare for instance the books that physically last decades and hundreds of years, and that can be read by anyone who knows the language without assistance more complicated than eyeglasses, versus decaying diskettes and the multiplicity of formats and computer languages that has turned information storage into a gigantic toxic Tower of Babble.

Each generation finds newness in the text of at least some of the dead and gone. Voices from the past may be as important to our present as they are likely to be to the future. Only the arrogant, the deluded and the ignorant of the lessons preserved in some of those texts, would think otherwise.

Just as a given text can transcend its historical time, it may well be useful beyond a particular performance of it. There is an inherent tension between text (often composed in isolation by individuals) and performance (often resulting from the dynamics of many people working as a group), and it is healthy tension, like the tension that holds the structure of a geodesic dome together.

Besides, as a practical matter, while some actors and directors feel constrained by a text, many more actors (in my experience) are hungry for playwrights to give them words to say.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Hotel Cassiopeia" by Charles Mee at the Court
Theatre in 2006. Posted by Picasa


"People just think that structure is something separate from what they have to say, but the way we structure what we have to say is maybe the most fundamental part of how we see the world. If you think A causes B causes C causes D, then that's what you believe. If you think A causes B causes Purple causes 136 and then shit happens, then that's your structure. It's really a vision of what you think life is and nobody can tell you what that should be."

playwright Charles Mee in The Dramatist (July/August 2008.) His work can be found at charles

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart open Hamlet;
David Warner in the classic 1960s Hamlet;
archeologists excavate what is believed to be the
foundation of the 16th century theatre in London
where Shakespeare worked and learned his craft.Posted by Picasa

Shakespeare in the News

Yes, it's time again for the Shakespeare in the News roundup. Tonight's headline: Dr. Who and Captain Picard Star in Hamlet!
Well, it's true. The Royal Shakespeare production has opened, with David Tennant (Doctor Who on the BBC) as Hamlet, and Patrick Stewart (formerly of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but more recently the prize-winning lead in Macbeth) as both Claudius, Hamlet's stepfather, and the Ghost of his father, the King who Claudius murdered.

"The hype, it seems, was justified," began the Guardian's roundup of the reviews. Michael Billington, the Guardian's critic, one of the most eminent in the UK, wrote (according to this story) that Tennant has no difficulty making the transition from the BBC's Time Lord to Shakespeare's Hamlet, a man "who could be bounded in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space". Indeed, Tennant - "active, athletic, immensely engaging" - is one of the funniest Hamlets Billington has ever seen, who goes on to say that, overall, it is "one of the most richly textured, best-acted versions of the play we have seen in years". The only thing that is missing is an insight into Hamlet's philosophical nature, something Billington partly attributes to director Gregory Doran's cuts to Shakespeare's longest play, resulting in some of "the most beautiful lines in all literature" being lost.

This was pretty much the consensus view: Tennant was very good but not (yet) great, and Patrick Stewart was brilliant. Another reviewer wrote that his performance as Claudius was the "strongest, scariest" he'd ever seen, "acting of the highest order." Others also mentioned the cuts in the text as too severe, resulting in more of a revenge drama.

Billington also wrote of Tennant, "He is a fine Hamlet whose virtues, and occasional vices, are inseparable from the production itself...This is a Hamlet of quicksilver intelligence, mimetic vigour and wild humour: one of the funniest I've ever seen. He parodies everyone he talks to, from the prattling Polonius to the verbally ornate Osric. After the play scene, he careers around the court sporting a crown at a tipsy angle. Yet, under the mad capriciousness, Tennant implies a filial rage and impetuous danger: the first half ends with Tennant poised with a dagger over the praying Claudius, crying: "And now I'll do it." Newcomers to the play might well believe he will. Tennant is an active, athletic, immensely engaging Hamlet. If there is any quality I miss, it is the character's philosophical nature, and here he is not helped by the production."

Hamlet is a defining role for an actor. As Canadian actor (and star of the TV series Slings and Arrows) Paul Gross commented, actors are considered pre- or -post Hamlet. It's self-defining even for actors who never get to play the role. In their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead DVD interviews, both Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfus are wistful about missing their chances to play Hamlet--both felt even at that time that they were too old. Dreyfus held out some hope for being able to do a radio version, but even that seemed unlikely. Al Pacino (on his DVD called Babblelonia) felt thwarted in doing any Shakespeare when he was young because he was too ethnic.

As for Tennant's good-but-not-great reviews, that could change: not only as this production continues, but as time goes by. I remember after seeing David Warner in the film Morgan! I had high hopes for his Hamlet (1965-67.) It was in England, and I never got a chance to see it, but I was dismayed at how dismissive the reviews were, at least the few I saw. Apparently, the reviews overall were mixed. So I was surprised to see, when reading about this new production, that Warner's Hamlet is now considered so highly. Patrick Stewart calls it the Hamlet of his generation, and Billington rates it in his top ten, of productions from 1958 to 2000. (Stewart later acted with Warner in a revival of Warner's Hamlet, as well as in a notable episode of Next Gen.)

This new production also awakens intense envy of London theatregoers, who had the opportunity to see so many great actors take on this role, and for that matter the others in this play. And thanks in part to the wildly popular Doctor Who, but also to the place that theatre has in UK culture, this production is a real event--inspiring, among other things, in a newspaper feature in which critics, actors and other theatrical celebs muse on their favorite Hamlets. Veteran critic Benedict Nightingale writes that he's seen at least 40.

Readers added their favorites in the comments to this article. Though I've seen Olivier, Branagh, Gibson, etc. in their film Hamlets, the only name actor I saw play the role on stage was Kevin Kline at the Public Theatre, and I wasn't terribly impressed.

My favorite Hamlet was my first, the inaugural production of the new arts center at Knox College, where I was a freshman. A student named Jim Eichelberger played Hamlet, and he was astonishing. He went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was a lead actor at Trinity Rep in Providence before becoming a star of experimental theatre, as Ethyl Eichelberger. He appeared in a production of The Threepenny Opera with Sting in the 80s. But he contracted AIDS, was apparently resistant to drugs of the time, and committed suicide in 1990--in fact, as I see his Wikipedia bio, on this very date, August 12.

Another production I liked a lot was one at the University of Pittsburgh, which had a summer Shakespeare festival, with performances in a kind of round stone castle called the Stephen Foster Memorial--very atmospheric for Shakespeare. A Canadian actor called Richard McMillan played Hamlet (I recognized him a few years ago in a small but substantive role in the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, acting with the great British actor Ian Holm.) I remember that this production started as a kind of postmodern dress Hamlet, but as the action intensified, the actors were all in sober Elizabethan costume. McMillan started out playing Hamlet as a moody young rebel with John Lennon shades, perhaps an echo of David Warner's very 60s hero.

Also associated with the new Hamlet, there was some controversy in England over celebrities possibly overwhelming Shakespearian productions. Director Jonathan Miller was critical (even though he's been known to use famous actors), but Michael Billington defended the Tennant production. It also helps that both Tennant and Stewart were trained and worked in RSC productions. The tradition of going back and forth between theatre and TV and theatre and movies is much more established in England, and Billington finds that a little screen stardom may even improve stage confidence and performance.

But Hamlet isn't the only Shakespeare in the News, not in England, oh no. Here's the breathless beginning to the Guardian story: A shiver of excitement rippled around the theatrical globe as news spread of some grubby red bricks uncovered in a muddy pit off a nondescript street in east London. Sir Ian McKellen will be making his way to New Inn Broadway in Shoreditch, one of many theatre luminaries impatient to see the site where his hero William Shakespeare learned his trade not just as a playwright but an actor.

It's The Theatre (that's what it was called) that's been lost for 400 years. Or anyway, part of its foundation--because the actual theatre was simply dismantled and transported to another location, where it became The Globe. It's believed to be the theatre where Shakespeare first acted, and where his first plays were performed.

Now that the site is known for sure, it can be properly excavated and the dimensions of The Theatre studied. Believed to have been built in 1576, it is where Shakespeare learned his craft. Its foundation was found by archeologists who had clues it might be there, while the site was being cleared for a new building: a new theatre, in fact.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Alot of Krapp

top: Samuel Beckett in London in 1983. bottom:
Harold Pinter playing in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape
in London in the late 90s. Posted by Picasa

Krapp's First Tape

Since "Memories" by the Signature Stage uses Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, I went back to look at the play and its history. I discovered that I might well have seen the first U.S. production of it.

Beckett wrote it for Patrick Magee to perform in London, along with his Endgame, in 1958. Shortly after that, the Provincetown Playhouse mounted it, together with Edward Albee's Zoo Story. I saw this bill in New York in the summer of 1965, where it had been running for a long time (or so Edward Albee told me when I asked him in the 90s who I might have seen in Zoo Story in 1965. He said the production went through a number of actors over years.) So I'm guessing that basically it was the same production.

These plays were the first with professional actors I remember ever seeing. It was between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I'd seen college productions that year, as well as a university production of Oedipus when I was in high school. My first Broadway experience was Camelot, which I saw on my first trip to New York while in high school, for the journalism conference at Columbia University. But that's a musical, and it was Broadway--not like the intimacy of a small theatre doing cutting edge plays.

I remember first of all being shocked by adult actors playing adults on stage. Not shocked as in surprised, at least in rational terms; nor shocked as in horrified or offended, though it did freak me out. Until that time I'd seen mostly students playing older characters. Actors of the same age as the characters they were playing made these plays so much more real, and with Zoo Story especially, that reality did keep me on the edge of my seat--a bit threatened even, by the sense of impending violence, of anything could happen.

I don't know who I saw in either play--it's one of the play programs I wish I still had, because they might have been actors I'd know now. My memory of Krapp's Last Tape is especially hazy. In fact, my clearest visual memory of the play is not from this production, but one which I saw back in college a year or two later. It was done by a student I knew, and who everybody knew as a little odd but intriguing. On our campus, the Studio Theatre was the place for newer plays and experiments, and during my years, there were several students who put on one play--maybe they wrote it, and/or acted in it, or just mounted it--that said something they wanted to say. Some did nothing else in theatre but that one play.

Maybe it was because this student felt Krapp's Last Tape said something he wanted to say, that it impressed me that way. But he did present an effective stage picture--I can still see him, with makeup accentuating his mad scientist features, his long arms reaching for tapes on the long table in front of him.

That the play is a monologue by an older man, looking back at his life--chiefly his failures--is not at all strange for a college student to do. We thought a lot about our fates. Maybe it was the era (Bomb, Vietnam, assassinations, etc.) or maybe it was being suddenly in touch with a much bigger world (in time and space) in college, yet our college being small and isolated, and most of us not from well-connected families in big and powerful places.

Anyway, there was a different sort of reality for us in the plays that we did, and that our fellow students did. It was part of our conversation with each other, our exploration of the future as well as the past.

First Principles: Storytelling

"Theatre is a pragmatic art form. It's a storytelling art form, and lives or dies by its storytelling."

Tom Stoppard

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Memories" at Signature Stage

Melissa Lawson and Tinamarie Ivey in
"Memories," Volume 1 in the year-long project
called Shades of Grey, by Signature Stage. It
plays this weekend only at the Eureka Theater.
Posted by Picasa

Don't Forget to Remember: Memories at Signature Stage

There are these paradoxes: theatre, like movies, TV and major-publisher literature, is increasingly created by the young, to the extent that a writer for the Dramatist Guild’s magazine felt compelled to bravely suggest that good new plays could actually be written by playwrights over the age of 30. Yet theatre audiences are consistently and increasingly older.

And while arts and entertainment coverage in the local press is increasingly skewed to a young demographic (which is statistically less likely to read newspapers), Humboldt County’s population trends older.

But there are some attempts on local stages to address aspects of later life. For the past few seasons Ferndale Rep has produced a senior show, and brought this year’s play—by Humboldt’s own Dave Silverbrand—to the Eureka Theatre, where, not entirely coincidentally, the resident company called Signature Stage is beginning a year-long project exploring issues of aging called Shades of Grey.”

Dan Stone and Tinamarie Ivey, founders of Signature Stage, together with the multi-talented Melissa Lawson and the omni-talented Gretha Omey, created the first show in this series, entitled “Memories,” on stage at the Eureka Theatre this weekend.

“Memories” is a theatrical mash-up of three plays that deal in different ways with the subject: Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Lost by Mary Louise Wilson, bookended by slices of Beckett’s Come and Go. After interviews and interactions with seniors, the ensemble created this experimental work-in-progress, which uses masks, movement, light and music as well as speech to suggest the fluid logic of dreams and memories.

As Gretha Omey suggested in the talk-back after the first preview performance last weekend, experimental theatre is by its nature more open to individual impressions. So here are mine:

The basic staging of Omey on one side interpreting snippets of Krapp’s Last Tape, while Lawson and Ivey performed scenes from Lost on the other worked well to evoke two perspectives on the topic: On the one side, the tragic or at least melancholic outcome of a man’s dimly recalled recurrent illusions, obsessions, unfulfilled promise and other losses, are emphasized by Omey’s slowly eloquent gestures. On the other, the apparently farcical preparations of two high-spirited women (delightfully performed by Lawson and Ivey) getting ready for a night out, feature so many consecutive senior moments that it takes forever for them to get out the door. Yet there are absurdly comic aspects to Krapp (even more so in the full Beckett play), and poignancy in the ladies who are lost.

All three performers enliven the evocative masks created by Dan Stone, who also edited the texts and directed. In moments when the characters reverted to youth, the masks came off to reveal the person inside, who is always younger than proclaimed by the mask each is forced by age to wear. Lighting (by Dan Stone) and especially the music (composed by Dan Stone) were essential to the performance. The Eureka Theatre is a huge place, but all of these elements contributed to the success of this intimate experiment. Maybe it’s the product of a youth misspent in movie palaces, but I’m comfortable in that theatre.

Then afterwards, the night sky outside was clear and Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were brightly visible (none of them, as far as I know, by Dan Stone.) Memories is at the Eureka Theatre this Thursday, Friday and Saturday (August 7-9) at 8 pm.

As for such projects regarding elders, while I welcome attempts to explore the vagaries of aging, I don’t think theatre about the old or for older audiences needs to concentrate exclusively on what is lost or troublesome. It seems to me rather that what theatre and this society are losing is the irreplaceable perspective of those who have lived long enough to actually have perspective, and maybe even to have learned something.

Reader, She Married Him

Stephen Reinhardt and Gilmer McCormick, guest
artists for Ferndale Rep's production of Godspell,
opening tonight. (See story below.)Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend: Godspell and More

Three shows open this weekend (four if you count the Ooh La La revue at the Eagle House):

Sanctuary Stage officially opens the "Memories" show of their Shades of Grey series at the Eureka Theatre, Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm. I'll post my review later today.

Ferndale Rep opens Godspell Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm. A little more on that show below.

Humboldt Light Opera opens The Wizard of Oz Friday and Saturday at 7:30 in the Van Duzer, with a 2 pm matinee on Sunday. It's described as featuring music and lyrics from the feature film.

Jeff DeMark continues his Willow Creek series with Writing My Way Out of Adolescence at 8:30 pm Saturday at the Redbud Theatre. Lend Me A Tenor continues at North Coast Rep.

Now here's the short preview of Godspell from my Journal column, with one correction--my editor, evidently not a Charlotte Bronte fan, changed a line about the off-stage romance which in some ways was at the heart of this production, or at least of my story about it. See if you can spot what I mean...

Back in 1996, Marilyn McCormick began her tenure as Artistic Director of the Ferndale Repertory Theatre with a production of Godspell, a musical that had a family connection: her sister Gilmer, who followed her to study drama at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University), was in the original cast when her fellow Tech student John-Michael Tebelek created it.

When Godspell moved to New York in 1971 with a new score, Stephen Reinhardt was hired as its musical director. That’s how he met Gilmer McCormick, and Reader, she married him. So when Marilyn suggested that Godspell should also be her last show as Artistic Director, her sister and brother-in-law came up from Los Angeles to put it on. It starts this weekend.

Gilmer McCormick directs, Stephen Reinhardt choreographs, but there’s also lots of local talent involved, including the cast of Patrick Croft, Bob Beideman, Denim Ohmit, Anthony Hughes, Tina Beideman, Shannan Dailey, Laureen Savage, Monica Schallert, Erin Jones-Martin and Dion Davis.

“It’s an excellent example of ensemble theatre, “Reinhardt told me. “This group reminds me of the original—all these wonderful kids, everyone contributing their talent to the whole. It’s very high energy, very funny, with totally infectious music—even all these years later.”

But this musical based on aspects of the life of Christ as told in the Gospel of Matthew is also “a transformative experience,” he said. “It’s reverent in its own way, and very honest about the gospels.”